When it comes to protecting the environment, blaming greenhouse gas emission problems on beef cattle or people who like a good steak is a claim that has little basis in fact.
“As with the production of all foods, beef production results in greenhouse gas emissions; however, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates direct emissions from the U.S. beef industry are only 1.9% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions,” said Sara Place, assistant professor of sustainable beef cattle systems for Oklahoma State University’s Division of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources.
In short, even without consideration of any unintended consequences and impacts of alternative protein sources, completely removing beef from the U.S. diet would likely not result in huge declines in greenhouse gas emissions, but could have negative implications on the sustainability of the nation's food system.
What about beef production accounting for only 1.9% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions? By comparison, transportation and electricity accounted for 25.8% and 30.6%, respectively, of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2013.
“You don’t hear many people clamoring for the elimination of electricity or transportation even though they produce much of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States,” Place said. “Instead, the focus is on reducing emissions, either by technological advances or by switching to alternative energy sources.”
That said the U.S. beef industry as a whole still has a demonstrated history of actively developing and implementing management practices that match up animal well-being and sound agribusiness economics with environmental stewardship.
Over the years, studies by J.L. Capper, C.A. Rotz and others indicate the U.S. beef industry has made notable and measurable advances to meet consumer demand for protein while reducing the amount of natural resources — animal feed, water and land — required in producing a pound of beef.
“Data indicate greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef produced have been reduced 9-16% since the 1970s, thanks to improved genetics of both the livestock and the largely inedible-to-humans plants they consume, improved animal nutrition, better operational management and the use of growth-promoting technologies,” Place said.
Further improvements in the efficiency of beef production are being continuously researched and evaluated at universities and other institutions, both in the U.S. and abroad.
“We’re not resting on our laurels,” said Clint Rusk, head of Oklahoma State’s department of animal science. “There are opportunities to further reduce beef’s overall greenhouse gas emission impact, and they are not limited to the cattle and agribusinesses that produce the nation’s beef. One of the most notable is in the area of consumer waste.”
USDA research indicates more than 20% of edible beef is wasted at grocery stores, restaurants and in the home.
“As with most foods, the amount of non-renewable resources used and the environmental impacts used in producing the portions of beef ending up in a landfill often are overlooked,” Rusk said.
Consumers could improve beef sustainability by 10% if related food waste were reduced by half, according to the 2014 Beef Checkoff Sustainability Executive Summary.
Rusk and Place emphasized that it is important for people not to overlook the many positive contributions of beef production as they relate to the sustainability of the U.S. food system when talking about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“Cattle have the ability to utilize grass forages and byproducts such as distiller’s grains that are not fit for human consumption,” Place said. “Specifically, cattle can utilize cellulose, one of the world’s most abundant carbon-containing molecules that are inedible to humans. Consequently, U.S. beef producers feed their cattle from food sources that are not in direct competition with human nutritional resources.”
In addition, cattle can convert low-quality feeds grown on lands not suitable for cultivation that humans won’t eat into high-quality protein that can sustain humans, thereby reducing soil erosion and enhancing carbon storage, both of which provide significant environmental benefits.
Furthermore, integrated crop and beef systems — using cattle to graze crop residues and cover crops — can lead to many positive and sustainable environmental outcomes. A cover crop is planted primarily to manage soil erosion, soil fertility, soil quality, water, weeds, pests, diseases, biodiversity and wildlife in an agricultural ecosystem.